The Law Council of Australia is calling for the creation of an independent body to hear complaints about judges as part of its push to reduce sexual harassment in the legal profession.
The peak body outlines its recommendations in its new National Action Plan to Reduce Sexual Harassment in the Australian Legal Profession, published on Wednesday.
A number of surveys indicate that sexual harassment is rife among lawyers.
The issue became the focus of attention earlier in 2020 when former High Court justice Dyson Heydon was found by the court’s own independent inquiry to have sexually harassed six young female associates.
The Law Council has previously called for the establishment of a Federal Judicial Commission to receive and respond to complaints about judges’ conduct.
The National Action Plan says an independent body could deal with allegations of sexual harassment.
“It is imperative that this matter be addressed at every level to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the profession and public confidence in the legal system as a whole,” the plan states.
The Law Council is also calling for the Sexual Discrimination Act to be changed so that harassment by judges is included, as well as other relationships in the legal profession like harassment between barristers or between witnesses and lawyers.
The plan also pledges to drive cultural change in the legal industry.
The council will develop a national model policy and guidelines for legal workplaces to use, try to work towards more consistent complaints processes for handling harassment allegations, and updates rules for solicitors so sexual harassment that is not professional misconduct can be punished.
It is also backing in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s recommendations in its March Respect@work report, the result of an inquiry launched in response to the #MeToo movement.
In particular, it has echoed the commission’s calls for training programs for judges and tribunal members on sexual harassment, a change to the law so that employees have a positive duty to prevent sexual harassment, and the establishment of a national Workplace Sexual Harassment Council to improve prevention of and responses to sexual harassment.
The Law Council said the plan heralds the start of a united and coordinated process to address the problem of harassment.
Council President Pauline Wright said sexual harassment in the legal profession was “unacceptable”.